2018 NBA Playoffs: Eastern Conference Finals Preview (Undeniable Boston Celtics vs LeBron’s Cleveland Cavs)
I’ve never been so happy to be wrong about the Boston Celtics and their playoff success. I forgot that Joel Embiid and Ben Simmons do not have Al Horford on their team. I forgot that Brad Stevens draws up plays that no 5-man NBA defense can possibly defend.
I forgot that this year’s Celtics have been the most resilient team in the NBA and they were facing a Philadelphia team that wasn’t seriously tested in the first round against Miami.
If these Celtics hadn’t caved in after Opening Night with Hayward’s injury (October 17)…and they hadn’t caved after losing the soul of their defense, Marcus Smart, who lost his temper on a hotel room picture frame (January 26)…and they hadn’t caved after Jaylen Brown landed awkwardly after a dunk and sustained a serious concussion (March 8)…and they hadn’t caved after Smart dove on the parquet for a loose ball and ended up damaging a ligament in his thumb (March 11)…and they hadn’t caved after the psychological blow of officially losing Kyrie for the entire playoffs after rest and a minor knee procedure didn’t help (April 5).
So…in a nutshell, the Celtics landed the East’s second seed and won 55 games despite numerous blows to their depth and collective psyche.
What made them so durable? To begin with: the depth of their roster. Everyone contributed positively to their dominant defense. We haven’t even mentioned the loss of the German Birdman Daniel Theis, whose wingspan, physicality, rim-protection and rim-running off the pick-and-roll all made him more than useful. Or Shane Larkin’s speedy, pesky intensity. Coming off his time in Spain, Larkin’s spark was the cause of an energy-shift in at least half a dozen wins this season. You’ll see the depth on display in rookie Semi Ojeleye, whose strength and switch-ability Stevens has praised since the preseason. Ojeleye started at Duke, before transferring to SMU, where fewer scouts pay much attention. This helped him slide to the second round, where the Celtics pounced on him with the 37th pick. Ojeleye averaged merely 2.7 points and 2.2 rebounds per game, shooting a very mediocre 32% from deep. But those numbers belie his true impact, which is his defense. Merely staying afloat from deep (over 30%) is what was called for from young Semi. Insert him into Games 5, 6 and 7 of the Celtics first round series against Giannis and the Milwaukee Bucks. The adjustment gave the Celtics defense a new weapon and Giannis found himself working hard for every inch, due to Ojeleye’s physicality and ability to absorb contact. Being nimble and 6'7", 235 lbs will help with that. Ojeleye would be a great tight end in the NFL.
In any event, here we are: the Conference Finals.
LeBron is LeBron, seemingly better than ever after bouncing the Raptors in a brutal sweep that ended Coach Dwayne Casey’s tenure in Toronto. Is LeBron Aging? Nope. Slowing down? Not yet. Hitting last-second runners off the glass because nobody can stop him one-on-one. Yes, of course.
There isn’t time for detailed preview, and there are countless, more informed NBA writers to read if you want that.
I’ll say this: Brad Stevens isn’t letting Kevin Love and Kyle Korver do what they did to the Raptors. Jaylen and Jayson and Semi and Marcus Morris are too smart and too physical to give them any space to drain threes.
LeBron may average 40 a game in this series, but the Celtics defense is ten times more trustworthy than the Cavs.
This will go 7. Flip a coin to see who wins. Stevens seems to have all the answers in close games. Boston has home court. I’ll take those odds. I’ve learned to trust this team’s ability to do whatever is needed. And I remember how awful Cleveland looked against a physical, tough, switchable Pacers defense in the first round.